What’s to like?
“A kind of homecoming” for Anathema, starting their Optimist tour in the same city they recorded the album in, and a night of exhilaration and frustration in equal measure.
The low down
It’s been a wee while since Anathema shared their stirring music with a Scottish audience, and I was beginning to think the band had given up on us. Since their last visit in 2014, we’d missed out on their acoustic tour performing in Cathedrals and then their Resonance tour revisiting their earliest material.
Given that their newest album The Optimist is on its way to becoming considered one of their best, if fan opinion is anything to go by, it would have been particularly disappointing to have been left off the roadmap yet again. (You can read my review of the album here.)
Anathema’s slowly growing popularity and recognition has always been a source of frustration for me, because I genuinely believe their music has a universal appeal to anyone who considers themselves a rock fan. The band’s most recent albums – We’re Here Because We’re Here, Weather Systems and Distant Satellites have seen them progress and evolve their sound into music that feels timeless and deeply emotional. I often joke that when I’m about to listen to one of their albums, I keep a box of tissues nearby.
Europe obviously gets the band, as their popularity abroad continues to soar and the size of theatre venues reflects that, but here in the UK, media attention has been grudging. Even with the clout of a seasoned label like Kscope, it’s been an uphill struggle for Anathema to move on beyond the prog /alt rock niche to a wider audience. But their choice of a bigger Glasgow venue this time round, and a considerably larger crowd turning up, the band do seem to be gaining momentum.
So it was a shame that the opening night of the tour was initially marred by technical problems. The crowd had been warmed up with a generous support slot from Alcest lasting almost an hour, and were clearly raring to see the headliners, but there were a series of false starts as the lights went down and then back up again, and crew members hurriedly fixing things on stage. As it turned out, guitarist Danny Cavanagh’s guitar amp packed in completely and had to be swapped out for one borrowed from Alcest, and although he was up and running again, I felt his sound was compromised for the entire set, often struggling to hear his solos above the rest of the band. It also sounded like his brother Vinnie (vocalist/guitarist) was having problems with his gear, and same with singer Lee Douglas’ monitors, if I caught the onstage banter correctly.
(Oh, and in a bizarre case of history repeating itself, during the opening moments of Closer, Vinnie’s laptop crashed at almost the same point it crashed during their 2012 show in Glasgow supporting Opeth!)
That’s live rock for you, and given that the support had experienced no technical problems during their set, I’d be surprised if the band hadn’t thoroughly rehearsed and sound-checked beforehand, so it’s a shame that the glitches arose at the last minute. Of course, it doesn’t help that The Garage has always had crap acoustics, at least to my ears, and I’ve rarely heard any band get the best out their instruments in that venue.
But in spite of this, Anathema put heart and soul into the next 110 minutes and the crowd loved them for it. Vinnie reminded us that they were no strangers in town, having spent three months recording the album in Glasgow earlier this year, so in some ways it was another “Kind Of Homecoming”.
And they gave us a great show, with songs lifted predominantly from the previous three albums, and of course, a healthy dose of The Optimist. They used that album’s instrumental track San Francisco to arrive onstage, and it worked brilliantly as a way of gradually growing the anticipation until all six band members were plugged in to start the show proper.
The Untouchable two-parter might seem like a predictable way of kicking off proceedings, but they’re a great way to directly connect with the audience and encourage their participation. There are the opening moments tailor-made for a clapalong, the rousing chorus towards the end of part one, and then the gentle pause to catch your breath in part tow before building things up again.
I was a little surprised that the opening cuts from the new album hadn’t been used to start the show, but they were quickly rolled out, once the audience and band had settled into the zone for the night. Leaving It Behind and Endless Ways came across really well, and fitted in pretty seamlessly with what had gone before. And at this point I quickly realised just how much Lee Douglas has become a vital part of Anathema’s sound.
Gone are the days where she’d shyly be introduced as a guest singer for selected songs, and then quietly leave the stage for the rest of the night. Her stage presence has come on leaps and bounds, grooving and interacting with the rest of the band in between her spots at the microphone, and while her singing was always good, it now feels more confident and assertive. She brings a sense of calm and poise in contrast to Vinnie’s more impassioned heart-on-sleeve approach to his vocals, and together they make a great combination.
Vinnie is a natural show-off at times but in a down-to earth way, and even though he must have sung the likes of The Beginning And The End so many times, on this night it felt like his life depended on it. Even though I was starting to feel a little fatigued from the poor sound and the crowding by that time of the night, Vinnie’s heart and soul singing and guitar riffing electrified me.
Meanwhile, off to stage left was his brother Danny, wearing a natty pair of heaphone monitors and often seemingly lost in his own world as he coaxed those signature Anathema solos from his guitars. It must have been a frustrating night for him, because there were signs at times that he couldn’t hear himself properly, and those moments when the guitar solo should have taken the listener to a higher level ended up feeling muted by comparison. It says a lot for the quality of the songs that those uplifting melodies still managed to connect with the audience in spite of the unbalanced sound.
I had initially wondered if the band were simply going to perform The Optimist in its entirety, from start to finish, given its storyline concept, but under the circumstances it was probably wiser to spread a sample of the songs across the whole set. The band had a screen projector set up behind them but the lighting often obscured the images on screen, and I’m still none the wiser about the album’s storyline.
Instead, we got a setlist that effectively showcased the best of Anathema over the last few albums. I know that some fans feel short-changed that the band have ditched their older material, but if I had to introduce someone new to Anathema and the kind of music they’re making now, then the songs played that night in Glasgow would make the ideal playlist for me.
And if there was one song which stood out on the night, it was a powerful performance of Distant Satellites. It’s not a track I played very much back in 2014, but I’ve grown more appreciative of electronica in the last couple of years, so I found myself enjoying the song’s opening section with its electronic beats. But then the guys notched things up a level by swapping the electronics for real drum kits – three of them – taking the song into a more tribal vibe, with the band illuminated in swathes of red lighting. And then the coup de grace, as the guitars and bass joined in to bring the song to its climax. Sounds simple on paper, but very effective live!
Unfortunately the band hit the dreaded curfew limit, but the venue charitably allowed them one last song, so after a tantalising few moments where it seemed like the band were about to cover the Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond, they gave us a suitably charged Fragile Dreams instead, which would have satisfied fans, old and new.
Being the first date on a new tour, there were bound to be technical glitches to deal with, and if I’m being honest, the sound mix on the night didn’t do the music justice. But despite the shortcomings, the band still managed to deliver a satisfying gig, giving it everything they had and showcasing the best of their music.
If the guys can iron out these glitches along the road, then those of you reading this and waiting to see them on a later date in the tour have a lot to look forward to.
Setlist (courtesy of Setlist.FM)
San Francisco, Untouchable (Part 1), Untouchable (Part 2), Leaving It Behind, Endless Ways, Thin Air, Dreaming Light, Can’t Let Go, The Beginning And The End, Closer Encore: Firelight, Distant Satellites, Springfield, Fragile Dreams